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Head of Homeland Security Answers Criticism About Department's Efficiency - 2003-05-20


Despite the raising of the terror threat level Tuesday, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, says Americans are safer than they were before the September 2001 terrorist attacks. But Mr. Ridge faced questions from members of a congressional panel about the efficiency of his department.

Mr. Ridge appeared before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security as the FBI issued a new warning about possible new terror attacks targeting Americans abroad, or in the United States.

A new FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) bulletin issued in the wake of terrorist car bombings in Saudi Arabia said the al-Qaida network could launch new attacks.

Congressional committees have been holding a series of hearings examining progress made in improving defenses against terrorism.

The hearing focused on a range of issues, from screening of airline baggage to a recent terrorism response exercise conducted in two American cities - Seattle and Chicago.

Mr. Ridge said those exercises contributed to preparedness by local emergency and health services for an actual emergency, and said that overall the homeland security department has made a good start.

"As we speak, across the country, people have been hired, trained and employed," he said. "The equipment has been provided, investigations have been run, and campaigns have been conducted that have the terrorist networks off balance. This quiet but remarkable progress has made a real difference."

But some lawmakers are skeptical about that progress, and believe the new department is not as efficient as it should be in gathering and processing information. "Congress created the Department of Homeland Security to do a better job of connecting the dots of our intelligence, but serious questions remain," said Texas Democratic Congressman Jim Turner. "Are the various intelligence agencies responsible for our security fully sharing counter-terrorism information? Does the Department of Homeland Security have the capacity to analyze threat information and direct resources to appropriate vulnerabilities? Finally, is intelligence information being provided to federal, state and local officials who are on the job every day to ensure the safety of the American people? We must get the intelligence aspects of homeland security right. If we fail, then much of the rest of what we do will have little meaning."

The Department of Homeland Security was created last year as a response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and to complaints federal agencies did not share, and act on, intelligence information about potential threats from al-Qaida.

Congressional and other critics point to continuing problems in information sharing with other agencies such as the CIA, which Congress kept outside the new homeland security department along with the FBI.

Mr. Ridge's appearance came before the announcement by the Department of Homeland Security raising the threat level for terrorist attacks from yellow [for elevated] to orange, representing a high risk of attack.

In his testimony, Mr. Ridge said the country's awareness of potential threats, as well as its ability to react, has improved.

"Today, we are significantly safer than we were 20 months ago," he said. "We are safer because, as a nation, we are more aware of the threat of terrorism and much more vigilant about confronting it."

"We are safer," he said, "because our homeland security professionals now have a single department leading them, and our states and cities have a single place to turn for financial, technical, and operational support."

The raising of the terrorist threat level followed a meeting of President Bush and his homeland security advisory council, which includes Mr. Ridge and other senior officials.

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